It’s great to have a friend you can talk to about your spiritual life. But that’s not the same as having a spiritual director. You may be wondering why anyone who has a good spiritual friend would want or need a spiritual director. As a person who has had both–spiritual friends and directors (over the years)–I can say with confidence that the relationships are very different.
Friends care deeply about us. They may even worry about us at times. Friends sometimes have trouble being neutral or withholding opinions about the choices we face. While I want someone who cares about my concerns, I do not always want to share deeply with someone who feels invested in me making one choice over another. Spiritual directors are not supposed to try to fix or mend us. They give us the freedom to feel what we feel and choose as we feel God is leading us. A spiritual friend may be helpful in that way, but because you already have the relationship of “friend” in the mix, they may have trouble resisting the urge to give you advice. I frequently need the neutrality that comes from the boundaries inherent in the spiritual direction relationship.
Spiritual friends are in a peer relationship. Usually when someone speaks of a spiritual friend they mean someone they can pray with as well as talk to about spirituality. Your spiritual friend probably does not have training in how to be a good spiritual friend! It’s great to have people in your life that you have equanimity with. The spiritual direction relationship, however, is not a peer relationship. It is hoped that the spiritual direction relationship is friendly, but that person is not technically your friend. The Code of Ethics for Spiritual Directors makes it clear that there is a power dynamic in spiritual direction that cannot be ignored. Because the directee shares a lot of personal information and the director primarily listens and guides, the director is in a role that holds some power. The spiritual director is responsible for keeping boundaries in the relationship safe and clear. Also, most spiritual directors have training in the art of spiritual guidance. They have spent time and money learning how to be in a healthy working relationship with you. They have been schooled in the importance of confidentiality.
Because of the clear boundaries, emphasis on confidentiality and training, I prefer the spiritual director to a spiritual friend for my more difficult and complicated questions. There will always be a place in my life for spiritual friends. But I wouldn’t replace my spiritual director with one.
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